Vladimir Nabokov 1899–-1977
(Full name Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov; also wrote under the pseudonym V. Sirin) Russian-born American novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright, critic, translator, biographer, autobiographer, and scriptwriter. See also Vladimir Nabokov Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 11.
Nabokov is widely recognized as one of the outstanding literary stylists of the twentieth century. His intricate, self-conscious fiction often investigates the illusory nature of reality and the artist's relationship to his craft. Nabokov maintained that “art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex”; by emphasizing stylistic considerations above notions of moral or social significance, he championed the primacy of the imagination, through which he believed a more meaningful reality might be perceived. Viewing words as significant objects as well as vehicles for meaning, Nabokov made use of intellectual games involving wordplay, acrostics, anagrams, and multilingual puns to create complex narratives. Although some critics have faulted Nabokov for his refusal to address social and political issues, many have maintained that beneath his passion for “composing riddles with elegant solutions,” as he himself once stated, Nabokov's fiction conveys a poignant regard for human feelings and morality.
Nabokov was born into an old, aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, one of the founders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, instilled in the Nabokov children the importance of education and liberal thinking. Doted on by his parents, and bequeathed a huge fortune in his teen years by a devoted uncle, Nabokov enjoyed a childhood of love and privilege, during which his intellectual, linguistic, and emotional sensitivities were cultivated, first in his home by his parents and tutors, and then at a progressively liberal, aggressively democratic school. The Russian Revolution of 1917, however, stripped him of his fortune and his homeland when the Nabokovs were forced to flee the country, ultimately settling in London. Nabokov began studying Russian and French literature at Cambridge University on a scholorship awarded for “political tribulation.” After graduating in 1922, Nabokov traveled to Berlin to work with his father on a Russian refugee newspaper. That year his father was killed in a politcal rally of Russian exiles while trying to shield the lecturer from right-wing assassins. The murder deeply affected Nabokov, and elements of the experience would recur throughout his writing. He remained in Berlin for several years, marrying Vera Slonim in 1925 and writing poetry, fiction, and translations to earn a living. His wife's Jewish ancestry necessitated their relocation to France in 1937 and to the United States in 1940 to escape Nazi persecution. Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945. In 1948, Nabokov accepted a post at Cornell University as a professor of Russian literature. During his tenure there, he wrote Lolita (1955), the work that brought him notoriety and popular success as a novelist and allowed him to concentrate soley on his writing career until his death in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1977.
Nabokov's novels written in Russian, many of them under the pseudonym V. Sirin, are generally regarded as more autobiographical and less significant than his works in English. In these novels, Nabokov focused on alienated and compulsive protagonists whose complex aesthetic imaginations and quests for self-knowledge render them social misfits. The chessmaster in Zashchita Luzhina (1930; The Defense), for example, strives to discover his indentity through chess but loses interest in his wife and family as the game becomes an obsession. After removing himself from society and losing his sanity, Luzhin commits suicide; his last glimpse of the world reveals an enormous chessboard on which he must play an endless game. Priglashenie na kazn' (1938; Invitation to a Beheading), a novel which prompted critical comparisons to Franz Kafka for its dreamlike plot, setting, and characters, relates the final days of a rebellious young man sentenced to death for the capital crime of “gnostical turpitude.” Many critics view this work as an allegory describing the artist's determination to remain free from collective social pressures. Nabokov's last novel in Russian, Dar (1937–38; The Gift), is usually considered his greatest work in his native language. Through five distinct stories which bear no integral relationship to one another, the novel brings its concerns together in the manner of a mosaic composed of strongly contrasting individual sections.
In Nabokov's first novel written in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), the narrator writes a biography of his recently deceased brother, novelist Sebastian Knight, in an attempt to reveal his true character. The narrator's efforts crumble, however, amid a confusion of identities, as he mistakenly pursues a man whom he believes to be his brother. Nabokov became a celebrity with his notorious novel Lolita. Rejected by four American publishers due to its pedophiliac subject matter, the book attracted large underground readership upon its publication in France and became a bestseller when published in the United States in 1958. The plot revolves around the disastrous passion of Humbert Humbert, a brilliant, middle-aged European professor, for Delores Haze, a promiscuous twelve-year-old schoolgirl whom he pursues to compensate for the loss of a love during his adolescence. Pnin (1957), one of Nabokov's most complex yet accessible works, centers on the bumbling attempts of an exiled Russian scholar to adapt to life at an American university. Nabokov's next novel, Pale Fire (1962), consists of a playful, parodistic exegesis of a complex 999-line poem about death, immortality, and art written in rhymed couplets and attributed to John Shade, whom Nabokov called “the greatest of invented poets.” The novel also includes a critical foreward, commentary, and index attributed to the pseudonymous Charles Kinbote, whom Nabokov identified as an unbalanced American scholar. In addition to his novels, Nabokov is also noted for his critical observations and scholarly pursuits. Several volumes of essays and memoirs have been published posthumously, including Lectures on Literature (1980), Lectures on Russian Literature (1981), and Speak, Memory (1983).
From the beginning of his career, Nabokov has been regarded as a major novelist. Upon his arrival in the United States, he was championed by the preeminent American literary critic, Edmund Wilson, who introduced him to Katherine S. White, a senior fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine, where he published verse, autobiography, and fiction for many years. He enjoyed a close friendship with Wilson, too, for nearly twenty years until a rancorous ending when Wilson attacked Nabokov as well as his monumentally annotated translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1964) in The New York Review of Books. Nabokov's adherence in his fiction to Russian formalism, emphasizing the self-reflexivity of language over its capacity to represent reality resulted in both praise for his aesthetic pyrotechnics and censure for his apparent lack of social consciousness or concern for moral issues. Even in 1997, Nabokov could still be the center of scandal as when Norman Podhoretz, the conservative critic, writing in Commentary, linked Nabokov's name with the Marquis de Sade and Larry Flint, editor of the pornographic magazine Hustler, and suggested that Lolita might be considered partially responsible for fostering a climate in which pedophilia could be deemed acceptable, a contention Colin McGinn refuted later that year in the London Times Literary Supplement.